voluntourism

Voluntourism is ultimately about the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit.

This must-read article looks at the power of imagery and photography in the growing business of global voluntourism - a popular trend amongst youth from Western countries that involves young, and sometimes inexperienced, individuals paying large amounts of money to travel to ‘developing’ nations to do everything from teaching, to building schools and providing healthcare. 

Whilst intentions may be well-meaning, aside from the patronizing aspect of these projects that resemble colonial missionary missions, the very fact that volunteering has been turned into a for-profit business is of major concern. So why does voluntourism still continue to be popular? According to Lauren Kascak & Sayantani DasGupta at the Pacific Standard, photography plays a significant role in the recruiting of people to participate in these programs.

As Kascak and DasGupta say:

Photography is a big part of the answer. Voluntourism organizations don’t have to advertise, because they can crowdsource. Photography—particularly the habit of taking and posting selfies with local children—is a central component of the voluntourism experience. Hashtags like #InstagrammingAfrica are popular with students on international health brigades, as are #medicalbrigades, #globalhealth, and of course the nostalgic-for-the-good-days hashtag #takemeback.

One of the writers themselves was inspired to become a “voluntourist” for this very reason citing “photographs posted by other students” as the inspiration that propelled them to go on their first overseas “medical mission”:

When classmates uploaded the experience of themselves wearing scrubs beside adorable children in developing countries, I believed I was missing out on a pivotal pre-med experience. I took over 200 photos on my first international volunteer mission. I modeled those I had seen on Facebook and even pre-meditated photo opportunities to acquire the “perfect” image that would receive the most Likes.

With time however, she became “uncomfortable with the ethics of those photographs” and decided not to take her camera along. One of the things I’ve always wondered about concerning voluntourism and other noble charity missions is why the need for all the press and cameras? Why the need to take the same types of photographs of the same kinds of work by the same kinds of people? It seems I, and many others, are not the only ones with these critical thoughts in mind. That’s because, as the writers say, “voluntourism is ultimately about the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit.” It’s a self-serving mission fueled by a mixture of narcissism and ignorance. As Kascak observed whilst on her medical mission trip in Ghana (a hotspot for many western volunteers),

“I realized that local people weren’t purchasing health insurance, since they knew there would be free foreign health care and medications available every few months. This left them vulnerable in the intervening times, not to mention when the organization would leave the community.”

Kascak and DasGupta have broken down the three most common types of voluntourist photographs, as per their observations.

THE SUFFERING OTHER

In a photograph taken by a fellow voluntourist in Ghana (not shown), a child stands isolated with her bare feet digging in the dirt. Her hands pull up her shirt to expose an umbilical hernia, distended belly, and a pair of too-big underwear. Her face is uncertain and her scalp shows evidence of dermatological pathology or a nutritional deficiency—maybe both. Behind her, only weeds grow.

Anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman note that images of distant, suffering women and children suggest there are communities incapable of or uninterested in caring for its own people. These photographs justify colonialist, paternalistic attitudes and policies, suggesting that the individual in the photograph …

… must be protected, as well as represented, by others. The image of the subaltern conjures up an almost neocolonial ideology of failure, inadequacy, passivity, fatalism, and inevitability. Something must be done, and it must be done soon, but from outside the local setting. The authorization of action through an appeal for foreign aid, even foreign intervention, begins with an evocation of indigenous absence, an erasure of local voices and acts.

THE SELF-DIRECTED SAMARITAN

Here we have a smiling young white girl with a French braid, medical scrubs, and a well-intentioned smile. This young lady is the centerpiece of the photo; she is its protagonist. Her scrubs suggest that she is doing important work among those who are so poor, so vulnerable, and so Other.

The girl is me. And the photograph was taken on my first trip to Ghana during a 10-day medical brigade. I’m beaming in the photograph, half towering and half hovering over these children. I do not know their names, they do not know my name, but I directed a friend to capture this moment with my own camera. Why?

This photograph is less about doing actual work and more about retrospectively appearing to have had a positive impact overseas. Photographs like these represent the overseas experience in accordance with what writer Teju Cole calls the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”

Moreover, in directing, capturing, and performing in photos such as these, voluntourists prevent themselves from actually engaging with the others in the photo. In On Photography, Susan Sontag reminds us:

Photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that…it is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

On these trips, we hide behind the lens, consuming the world around us with our powerful gazes and the clicking of camera shutters. When I directed this photo opportunity and starred in it, I used my privilege to capture a photograph that made me feel as though I was engaging with the community. Only now do I realize that what I was actually doing was making myself the hero/star in a story about “suffering Africa.”

THE OVERSEAS SELFIE

In his New York Times Op-Ed, that modern champion of the selfie James Franco wrote:

Selfies are avatars: Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are…. In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, “Hello, this is me.”

Although related to the Self-Directed Samaritan shot, there’s something extra-insidious about this type of super-close range photo. “Hello, this is me” takes on new meaning—there is only one subject in this photo, the white subject. Capturing this image and posting it on the Internet is to understand the Other not as a separate person who exists in the context of their own family or community. but rather as a prop, an extra, someone only intelligible in relation to the Western volunteer.

#intagrammingafrica: The narcissism of global voluntourism.

By Lauren Kascak with Sayantani DasGupta PhD

An article in The Onion mocks voluntourism, joking that a 6-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s facebook profile picture.”  The article quotes “22-year old Angela Fisher” who says:

I don’t think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arms around those small African children’s shoulders.

It goes on to say that Fisher “has been encouraging every one of her friends to visit Africa, promising that it would change their Facebook profile photos as well.”

I was once Angela Fisher. But I’m not any more.

***

I have participated in not one but three separate, and increasingly disillusioning, international health brigades, short-term visits to developing countries that involve bringing health care to struggling populations.

Such trips – critically called voluntourism — are a booming business, even though they do very little advertising and charge people thousands of dollars to participate.

How do they attract so many paying volunteers?

Photography is a big part of the answer.  Voluntourism organizations don’t have to advertise, because they can crowdsource.  Photography – particularly the habit of taking and posting selfies with local children – is a central component of the voluntourism experience. Hashtags like #InstagrammingAfrica are popular with students on international health brigades, as are #medicalbrigades, #globalhealth, and of course the nostalgic-for-the-good-days hashtag #takemeback.

It was the photographs posted by other students that inspired me to go on my first overseas medical mission. When classmates uploaded the experience of themselves wearing scrubs beside adorable children in developing countries, I believed I was missing out on a pivotal pre-med experience. I took over 200 photos on my first international volunteer mission. I modeled those I had seen on Facebook and even premeditated photo opportunities to acquire the “perfect” image that would receive the most “likes.”

Over time, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the ethics of those photographs, and ultimately left my camera at home. Now, as an insider, I see three common types of photographs voluntourists share through social media: The Suffering Other, The Self-Directed Samaritan, and The Overseas Selfie.

The Suffering Other

In a photograph taken by a fellow voluntourist in Ghana (not shown), a child stands isolated with her bare feet digging in the dirt. Her hands pull up her shirt to expose an umbilical hernia, distended belly, and a pair of too-big underwear. Her face is uncertain and her scalp shows evidence of dermatological pathology or a nutritional deficiency—maybe both. Behind her, only weeds grow.

Anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman note that images of distant, suffering women and children suggest there are communities incapable of or uninterested in caring for its own people. These photographs justify colonialist, paternalistic attitudes and policies, suggesting that the individual in the photograph…

…must be protected, as well as represented, by others. The image of the subaltern conjures up an almost neocolonial ideology of failure, inadequacy, passivity, fatalism, and inevitability. Something must be done, and it must be done soon, but from outside the local setting. The authorization of action through an appeal for foreign aid, even foreign intervention, begins with an evocation of indigenous absence, an erasure of local voices and acts.

The Self-directed Samaritan

Above we have a smiling young white girl with a French braid, medical scrubs, and a well-intentioned smile. This young lady is the centerpiece of the photo; she is its protagonist. Her scrubs suggest that she is doing important work among those who are so poor, sovulnerable, and so Other.

The girl is me. And the photograph was taken on my first trip to Ghana during a 10 day medical brigade. I’m beaming in the photograph, half towering and half hovering over these children. I do not know their names, they do not know my name, but I directed a friend to capture this moment with my own camera. Why?

This photograph is less about doing actual work and more about retrospectively appearing to have had a positive impact overseas. Photographs like these represent the overseas experience in accordance with what writer Teju Cole calls the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”

Moreover, in directing, capturing, and performing in photos such as these, voluntourists prevent themselves from actually engaging with the others in the photo. In On PhotographySusan Sontag reminds us:

Photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that…it is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

On these trips, we hide behind the lens, consuming the world around us with our powerful gazes and the clicking of camera shutters. When I directed this photo opportunity and starred in it, I used my privilege to capture a photograph that made me feel as though I was engaging with the community. Only now do I realize that what I was actually doing was making myself the hero/star in a story about “suffering Africa.”

The Overseas Selfie

[Photo removed in response to a request from Global Brigades.]

In his New York Times Op-Ed, that modern champion of the selfie James Franco wrote:

Selfies are avatars: Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are … In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, “Hello, this is me.”

Although related to the Self-Directed Samaritan shot, there’s something extra-insidious about this type of super-close range photo. “Hello, this is me” takes on new meaning – there is only one subject in this photo, the white subject. Capturing this image and posting it on the internet is to understand the Other not as a separate person who exists in the context of their own family or community but rather, as a prop, an extra, someone only intelligible in relation to the Western volunteer.

***

Voluntourism is ultimately about the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit. In fact, medical volunteerism often breaks down existing local health systems. In Ghana, I realized that that local people weren’t purchasing health insurance, since they knew there would be free foreign health care and medications available every few months. This left them vulnerable in the intervening times, not to mention when the organization would leave the community.

In the end, the Africa we voluntourists photograph isn’t a real place at all. It is an imaginary geography whose landscapes are forged by colonialism, as well as a good deal of narcissism. I hope my fellow students think critically about what they are doing and why before they sign up for a short-term global volunteer experience. And if they do go, it is my hope that they might think with some degree of narrative humility about how to de-center themselves from the Western savior narrative. Most importantly, I hope they leave their iphones at home.

Lauren Kascak is a graduate of the Masters Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, where Sayantani DasGupta is a faculty member.  DasGupta is the editor of Stories of Illness and Healing and the author of The Demon Slayers and Other Stories and Her Own Medicine.

I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to — who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.
Before you sign up for a volunteer trip anywhere in the world this summer, consider whether you possess the skill set necessary for that trip to be successful. If yes, awesome. If not, it might be a good idea to reconsider your trip. Sadly, taking part in international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is not benign. It’s detrimental. It slows down positive growth and perpetuates the “white savior” complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches. Be smart about traveling and strive to be informed and culturally aware. It’s only through an understanding of the problems communities are facing, and the continued development of skills within that community, that long-term solutions will be created.
vimeo

‘Africa Does Not Need A Savior, America Needs A Savior’

by Britni Danielle | clutchmagonline.com

Framed: A new film rejects America’s white savior complex.

When it comes to the continent of Africa, only a few stories find their way to the mainstream. While the continent is home to more than 50 countries full of diverse people and cultures, Western media often focuses on issues of war, poverty, disease, and corruption, leading many Americans to believe they must “save” Africa.

We’ve seen it time and time again through seemingly innocent initiatives like the Kony 2012 movement or celebrity-driven campaigns to heal/help/teach Africa. Though the intentions of those who participate in such projects may be good, their willingness to believe they can “save” an entire continent of people who are more than capable of “saving” themselves (if it’s even necessary), is naïve at best, and downright condescending at worst.

After I wrote about Witherspoon’s upcoming film The Good Lie in which she plays a hardscrabble white woman who “saves” a group of Sudanese refugees, filmmaker Cassandra Herrman reached out to me to tell me about her documentary, Framed, which takes a look at America’s savior complex.

In FramedHerrman and her team interview Africans from all over the continent to get their take on the West’s savior industrial complex, which has resulted in students, celebrities, and non-government organizations (NGOs) flocking to the continent, because as Binyavanga Wainaina put it, in their view “Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated.”

Here’s more info about film via the Framed Kickstarter page:

FRAMED takes a provocative look at image making and activism, following an inspiring young Kenyan photojournalist turned activist who shatters the stereotype of the passive aid recipient. As he challenges American students to focus their efforts close to home, FRAMED turns a lens on popular representations of Africa and Africans, as seen through the eyes of Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina and South African born educator Zine Magubane, who ask a chorus of questions about the selling of suffering.

FRAMED tells the story of Boniface Mwangi’s work as an image maker and image changer. From the moment he saw how his own photography could heal Kenyan wounds, he repurposed images of violence to promote reconciliation, and rallied his peers to jumpstart a creative and political youth movement.  Visiting an American college, he challenges students to turn their attention to struggling communities around them. “Why do you want to fly all that way, and on your way to the airport you pass poverty, to go and help poverty in Kenya?”

Along the way, we meet Zine Magubane, who was born in South Africa and teaches American college students at Boston College about the portrayal of Africa in American media and pop culture.  “When you see celebrity activists in Darfur or elsewhere,” she says, “you’d think there were no African think tanks, no African universities, no African human rights lawyers working on this issue”.

Framed’s filmmakers are hoping to raise $28,000 to complete production on the documentary; so far, they’ve gotten just over $13,000 in donations and have 15 days left.

Watch the powerful clip of Framed belowVisit the film’s Kickstarter page for more info and to donate.

Source: http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2014/06/africa-need-savior-america-needs-savior/

#Instagrammingafrica: The narcissism of global voluntourism.

By Lauren Kascak with Sayantani DasGupta, MD MPH

An article in The Onion mocks voluntourism, joking that a 6-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s facebook profile picture.”  The article quotes “22-year old Angela Fisher” who says:

I don’t think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arms around those small African children’s shoulders.

It goes on to say that Fisher “has been encouraging every one of her friends to visit Africa, promising that it would change their Facebook profile photos as well.”

I was once Angela Fisher. But I’m not any more.

***

I have participated in not one but three separate, and increasingly disillusioning, international health brigades, short-term visits to developing countries that involve bringing health care to struggling populations.

Such trips – critically called voluntourism — are a booming business, even though they do very little advertising and charge people thousands of dollars to participate.

How do they attract so many paying volunteers?

Photography is a big part of the answer.  Voluntourism organizations don’t have to advertise, because they can crowdsource.  Photography – particularly the habit of taking and posting selfies with local children – is a central component of the voluntourism experience. Hashtags like #InstagrammingAfrica are popular with students on international health brigades, as are #medicalbrigades, #globalhealth, and of course the nostalgic-for-the-good-days hashtag #takemeback.

It was the photographs posted by other students that inspired me to go on my first overseas medical mission. When classmates uploaded the experience of themselves wearing scrubs beside adorable children in developing countries, I believed I was missing out on a pivotal pre-med experience. I took over 200 photos on my first international volunteer mission. I modeled those I had seen on Facebook and even premeditated photo opportunities to acquire the “perfect” image that would receive the most “likes.”

Over time, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the ethics of those photographs, and ultimately left my camera at home. Now, as an insider, I see three common types of photographs voluntourists share through social media: The Suffering Other, The Self-Directed Samaritan, and The Overseas Selfie.

The Suffering Other

In a photograph taken by a fellow voluntourist in Ghana (not shown), a child stands isolated with her bare feet digging in the dirt. Her hands pull up her shirt to expose an umbilical hernia, distended belly, and a pair of too-big underwear. Her face is uncertain and her scalp shows evidence of dermatological pathology or a nutritional deficiency—maybe both. Behind her, only weeds grow.

Anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman note that images of distant, suffering women and children suggest there are communities incapable of or uninterested in caring for its own people. These photographs justify colonialist, paternalistic attitudes and policies, suggesting that the individual in the photograph…

…must be protected, as well as represented, by others. The image of the subaltern conjures up an almost neocolonial ideology of failure, inadequacy, passivity, fatalism, and inevitability. Something must be done, and it must be done soon, but from outside the local setting. The authorization of action through an appeal for foreign aid, even foreign intervention, begins with an evocation of indigenous absence, an erasure of local voices and acts.

The Self-Directed Samaritan

In the image accompanying this story, we have a smiling young white girl with a French braid, medical scrubs, and a well-intentioned smile. This young lady is the centerpiece of the photo; she is its protagonist. Her scrubs suggest that she is doing important work among those who are so poor, so vulnerable, and so Other.

The girl is me. And the photograph was taken on my first trip to Ghana during a 10 day medical brigade. I’m beaming in the photograph, half towering and half hovering over these children. I do not know their names, they do not know my name, but I directed a friend to capture this moment with my own camera. Why?

This photograph is less about doing actual work and more about retrospectively appearing to have had a positive impact overseas. Photographs like these represent the overseas experience in accordance with what writer Teju Cole calls the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”

Moreover, in directing, capturing, and performing in photos such as these, voluntourists prevent themselves from actually engaging with the others in the photo. In On PhotographySusan Sontag reminds us:

Photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that…it is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

On these trips, we hide behind the lens, consuming the world around us with our powerful gazes and the clicking of camera shutters. When I directed this photo opportunity and starred in it, I used my privilege to capture a photograph that made me feel as though I was engaging with the community. Only now do I realize that what I was actually doing was making myself the hero/star in a story about “suffering Africa.”

The Overseas Selfie


[Photo removed in response to a request from Global Brigades.]

In his New York Times Op-Ed, that modern champion of the selfie James Franco wrote:

Selfies are avatars: Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are … In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, “Hello, this is me.”

Although related to the Self-Directed Samaritan shot, there’s something extra-insidious about this type of super-close range photo. “Hello, this is me” takes on new meaning – there is only one subject in this photo, the white subject. Capturing this image and posting it on the internet is to understand the Other not as a separate person who exists in the context of their own family or community but rather, as a prop, an extra, someone only intelligible in relation to the Western volunteer.

***

Voluntourism is ultimately about the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit. In fact, medical volunteerism often breaks down existing local health systems. In Ghana, I realized that that local people weren’t purchasing health insurance, since they knew there would be free foreign health care and medications available every few months. This left them vulnerable in the intervening times, not to mention when the organization would leave the community.

In the end, the Africa we voluntourists photograph isn’t a real place at all. It is an imaginary geography whose landscapes are forged by colonialism, as well as a good deal of narcissism. I hope my fellow students think critically about what they are doing and why before they sign up for a short-term global volunteer experience. And if they do go, it is my hope that they might think with some degree of narrative humility about how to de-center themselves from the Western savior narrative. Most importantly, I hope they leave their iphones at home.

Lauren Kascak is a graduate of the Masters Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, where Sayantani DasGupta is a faculty member.  DasGupta is the editor of Stories of Illness and Healing and the author of The Demon Slayers and Other Stories and Her Own Medicine.

3

Hello Tumblr! An eco-reserve in a developing part of northern Costa Rica is in desperate need of help. I am trying to go there over the summer to donate my time to the animal care center, which receives countless injured, ill, and displaced wildlife. Above you can see some of the animals they care for; Memo the howler monkey, Mrs. Piggy the peccary, and Diego the baby three-toed sloth. The total cost to volunteer for 1 week is ~$2,000. This includes program cost, airfare, and insurance. Every $500 thereafter would allow me to stay for an additional week. Find out more (and donate if you want to help me make a dream come true!) at gofundme.com/hydguw

When (especially white) people say they would rather *go there and build something myself* than donate money to organizations in impoverished countries / areas

If you have no skills, no knowledge of the country or culture, no idea what´s really needed, you won´t help, you´ll be a burden. Just because you´re white and from a rich country does not mean that you can magically help people who you think need your saving. fu.

(I liked this article: "Is ‘voluntourism’ the new colonialism?")

By BY LAUREN KASCAK & SAYANTANI DASGUPTA | June 19, 2014

"Voluntourism is ultimately about the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit.” 

An article in The Onion mocks voluntourism, joking that a six-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s Facebook profile picture.”  The article quotes “22-year-old Angela Fisher” who says:

I don’t think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arms around those small African children’s shoulders.

It goes on to say that Fisher “has been encouraging every one of her friends to visit Africa, promising that it would change their Facebook profile photos as well.”

I was once Angela Fisher. But I’m not any more.

I HAVE PARTICIPATED IN not one but three separate, and increasingly disillusioning, international health brigades, short-term visits to developing countries that involve bringing health care to struggling populations.

Such trips—critically called voluntourism—are a booming business, even though they do very little advertising and charge people thousands of dollars to participate.

How do they attract so many paying volunteers?

Photography is a big part of the answer. Voluntourism organizations don’t have to advertise, because they can crowdsource. Photography—particularly the habit of taking and posting selfies with local children—is a central component of the voluntourism experience. Hashtags like #InstagrammingAfrica are popular with students on international health brigades, as are #medicalbrigades, #globalhealth, and of course the nostalgic-for-the-good-days hashtag #takemeback.

It was the photographs posted by other students that inspired me to go on my first overseas medical mission. When classmates uploaded the experience of themselves wearing scrubs beside adorable children in developing countries, I believed I was missing out on a pivotal pre-med experience. I took over 200 photos on my first international volunteer mission. I modeled those I had seen on Facebook and even pre-meditated photo opportunities to acquire the “perfect” image that would receive the most Likes.

Over time, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the ethics of those photographs, and ultimately left my camera at home. Now, as an insider, I see three common types of photographs voluntourists share through social media: The Suffering Other, The Self-Directed Samaritan, and The Overseas Selfie.

THE SUFFERING OTHER

In a photograph taken by a fellow voluntourist in Ghana (not shown), a child stands isolated with her bare feet digging in the dirt. Her hands pull up her shirt to expose an umbilical hernia, distended belly, and a pair of too-big underwear. Her face is uncertain and her scalp shows evidence of dermatological pathology or a nutritional deficiency—maybe both. Behind her, only weeds grow.

Anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman note that images of distant, suffering women and children suggest there are communities incapable of or uninterested in caring for its own people. These photographs justify colonialist, paternalistic attitudes and policies, suggesting that the individual in the photograph …

… must be protected, as well as represented, by others. The image of the subaltern conjures up an almost neocolonial ideology of failure, inadequacy, passivity, fatalism, and inevitability. Something must be done, and it must be done soon, but from outside the local setting. The authorization of action through an appeal for foreign aid, even foreign intervention, begins with an evocation of indigenous absence, an erasure of local voices and acts.

THE SELF-DIRECTED SAMARITAN

Here we have a smiling young white girl with a French braid, medical scrubs, and a well-intentioned smile. This young lady is the centerpiece of the photo; she is its protagonist. Her scrubs suggest that she is doing important work among those who are so poor, so vulnerable, and so Other.

The girl is me. And the photograph was taken on my first trip to Ghana during a 10-day medical brigade. I’m beaming in the photograph, half towering and half hovering over these children. I do not know their names, they do not know my name, but I directed a friend to capture this moment with my own camera. Why?

This photograph is less about doing actual work and more about retrospectively appearing to have had a positive impact overseas. Photographs like these represent the overseas experience in accordance with what writer Teju Cole calls the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”

Moreover, in directing, capturing, and performing in photos such as these, voluntourists prevent themselves from actually engaging with the others in the photo. In On Photography, Susan Sontag reminds us:

Photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that…it is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

On these trips, we hide behind the lens, consuming the world around us with our powerful gazes and the clicking of camera shutters. When I directed this photo opportunity and starred in it, I used my privilege to capture a photograph that made me feel as though I was engaging with the community. Only now do I realize that what I was actually doing was making myself the hero/star in a story about “suffering Africa.”

THE OVERSEAS SELFIE

In his New York Times Op-Ed, that modern champion of the selfie James Franco wrote:

Selfies are avatars: Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are…. In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, “Hello, this is me.”

Although related to the Self-Directed Samaritan shot, there’s something extra-insidious about this type of super-close range photo. “Hello, this is me” takes on new meaning—there is only one subject in this photo, the white subject. Capturing this image and posting it on the Internet is to understand the Other not as a separate person who exists in the context of their own family or community. but rather as a prop, an extra, someone only intelligible in relation to the Western volunteer.

VOLUNTOURISM IS ULTIMATELY ABOUT the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit. In fact, medical volunteerism often breaks down existing local health systems. In Ghana, I realized that local people weren’t purchasing health insurance, since they knew there would be free foreign health care and medications available every few months. This left them vulnerable in the intervening times, not to mention when the organization would leave the community.

In the end, the Africa we voluntourists photograph isn’t a real place at all. It is an imaginary geography whose landscapes are forged by colonialism, as well as a good deal of narcissism. I hope my fellow students think critically about what they are doing and why before they sign up for a short-term global volunteer experience. And if they do go, it is my hope that they might think with some degree of narrative humility about how to de-center themselves from the Western savior narrative. Most importantly, I hope they leave their iPhones at home.

This post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism.”

Source: http://www.psmag.com/navigation/business-economics/instagrammingafrica-narcissism-global-voluntourism-83838/

Stephanie Lai draws on her international development expertise to advise you on how not to do voluntourism badly.

I wrote an article! In a world where I know people are gonna insist on travelling to volunteer, I talk about assumptions, colonialism, and how not to do it, without being too mean. (I’m a little mean, but this is like version four and it is WAY softer than it was when I started) 

Pete Pattisson in Kathmandu | The Guardian | Tuesday 27 May 2014

Like an increasing number of tourists visiting Nepal's mountain peaks, colourful markets and lush national parks, Marina Argeisa wanted to experience the latest must-do activity on the tourist trail: a volunteering stint at an orphanage.

What the 26-year-old Spaniard did not know was that her good intentions were unwittingly feeding an industry that dupes poor parents into sending their children to bogus orphanages in order to extract money from well-meaning foreigners.

It is a business model built on a double deception: the exploitation of poor families in rural Nepal and the manipulation of wealthy foreigners. In the worst cases, tourists may be unwittingly complicit in child trafficking.

Nepal’s tourist sector comprises nearly 3% of its gross domestic product, and in 2012 more than 600,000 foreigners visited the tiny country.

Volunteering, or voluntourism as it is sometimes known, is a rapidly expanding industry. There are dozens of agencies offering the chance to spend weeks, or months, working at some of the country’s 800 orphanages.

More than 80% of these institutions are located in the most popular tourist hotspots: the ancient Kathmandu Valley; the trekking capital of Pokhara; and Chitwan, home to the largest national park. Child rights campaigners claim the country is also home to numerous unregistered orphanages.

Yet many of the occupants of these sites have at least one living parent. The latest investigation by Unicef, the UN’s children agency, found that 85% of children in the orphanages they visited had at least one living parent.

The trade in children begins in Nepal’s remote and impoverished countryside, where parents are tricked into sending their children to orphanages, often lured by the promise of an education.

Lojung Sherpa sent three of her children to the Happy Home orphanage in the capital after she was told that foreigners would educate them and raise money for one of her daughters, who has a serious medical condition. But when Sherpa spoke to her daughter some time later, she was told that all donations towards her treatment had been taken by the orphanage’s owner.

Sherpa travelled to Kathmandu to remove her children from the home but was repeatedly turned away. After an investigation, which resulted in the arrest of the orphanage owner on charges of child abduction and fraud, police officers discovered that Sherpa’s children were missing. The youngsters were later found at various locations across the city, where they had been hidden, and eventually reunited with their mother.

Philip Holmes, chief executive of Freedom Matters, the charity that instigated the inquiry into Happy Home, said that in the worst cases this practice constituted child trafficking.

"Once a child enters an orphanage, he or she seems to become the property of the orphanage owner … [In effect], they become prisoners of the orphanage," he said. "[They] use the children as an income source, through the sponsorship of children who are presented as being orphans when they are not … and through the exploitation of overseas volunteers."

When Dorota Nvotova, a young Slovakian, began volunteering at Happy Home in 2008, she was so moved by the children’s plight that she found a sponsor for every one of them. She raised about €150,000 (£122,000) for the home, but it was only later that she discovered the real reason its owner was so eager to attract foreign volunteers.

"It’s definitely about him making money. For him, it’s a business," she said. "Whenever volunteers came he always tried to impress them and then they started fundraising for him."

Argeisa admits that she too felt compelled to help the children of Nepal. During her search for a volunteering opportunity, it was the stories of the orphans profiled on the website of VolNepal, a Kathmandu-based agency, that attracted her attention.

She quickly signed up and paid $480 (£285) to spend four weeks looking after the children, but had no idea their profiles had been fabricated. “I couldn’t imagine there were people doing bad things to children and using the vulnerability of children to make money,” she said.

After strange behaviour at the orphanage aroused her suspicions about the home’s proprietor, Argeisa discovered that two sisters publicised as being orphans had living parents who had paid vast sums of money to a broker to send their children to the home to be educated.

And they were being educated, but at a cost far beyond anything her parents could imagine. The girls were being used to generate donations from tourists, with the orphanage claiming that their mother and father had abandoned them and no other relatives could be found.

"These little girls are very important for the owner of the home to get money. This is the only reason that they want these children," Argeisa said. "They are [being] used."

After one of the sisters confessed that she was being sexually abused by the owner, Argeisa reported the allegations to a local children’s organisation, Action for Child Rights (ACR). The owner of the orphanage was subsequently arrested for attempted rape.

"This was very, very hard … I couldn’t stop my feelings against that man," Argeisa said. "I think his mission was making money … and abusing children … He wouldn’t have set up the home if there were no westerners coming and giving money and doing volunteering.

"The foreigners do not realise what is happening because they [orphanage owners] are specialists in stopping people from seeing the dark side. There are many people living for six months in an orphanage and they don’t realise this, because these children are scared … These houses are jails for these children."

This is not an exceptional case, says Jürgen Conings, general director of ACR, who has spent 10 years in Nepal investigating the nexus between foreigners, adoption agencies and orphanages. “I’m 100% sure that the majority of these homes are built for reasons other than childcare,” he said. “Foreign volunteers give a home credibility … and they pay to volunteer, so it’s a strong business model.”

report by Tourism Research and Marketing estimates that volunteer tourism attracts 1.6 million people a year, and that the market is worth up to £1.3bn.

While there are no reliable figures about the scale of voluntourism in Nepal, Martin Punaks, country director of Next Generation Nepal, which reunites orphanage-trafficked children with their families, believes it is a growing industry. “There is the potential for huge profits to be made for those who intentionally and unnecessarily displace children from their families, so they can be used as lucrative poverty commodities to raise funds from well-intentioned but ill-informed tourists,” he said.

The government recognises the problem but is struggling cope with the scale of it. “These children are a showpiece [for fundraising], but no one knows how much the owner gets and how much goes to the children,” said Tarak Dhital, executive director of the Central Child Welfare Board (CCWB). “We have introduced minimum standards for children’s homes and we need to strengthen our monitoring systems, but haven’t been able to till now … we lack financial and human resources.”

The CCWB is responsible for regulating orphanages in Nepal, but there are serious questions about its capacity to do so. According to its latest report, 90% of children’s homes failed to meet the government’s minimum operating standards.

However, Conings cautioned against the blanket condemnation of Nepalese orphanages. “A lot of good things are done; a lot of NGOs and social workers are doing an amazing job,” he said. “We would never say it’s not good [to volunteer], but we want to bring this to the public’s attention. There is a positive and negative, so be aware and make good decisions.”

But Nvotova questions the premise of volunteering at an orphanage. “[Foreigners] feel cool by doing this,” she said. “But I think it’s more selfish than useful. Very often [volunteers] don’t want to see the truth. They just want to feel needed and useful.”

• Some names have been changed

5 Crazy Cool Vacations that Help You Save the World

A story I wrote for Yahoo Travel…

Next time you’re on vacation, how about saving the world while you’re at it? Ok, perhaps not the whole world, but every little bit helps-right? Around the globe, companies are offering travelers the chance to join in their conservation efforts with hands-on, a-once-in-a-lifetime experiences.  Whether your passionate about nature, culture, or wildlife, these five voluntourism adventures are equal parts thrilling and worthwhile. 

Check it out

3

For the last 25 years, the man known as Joe the Barber has been offering homeless people in Hartford, Connecticut haircuts in exchange for hugs.

Anthony Cymerys started offering his services to those less fortunate in 1988, after hearing a sermon about the homeless. He had just retired and was only cutting hair for family, but those inspiring words he had heard in church made him decide he didn’t want the homeless looking like homeless anymore. So he prepared his tools, put them in the car and started driving around town looking for people in need of his services. In the beginning, he helped people in shelters and convalescent homes, then he cut hair in downtown YMCA for years, before moving to the carousel near Bushnell Park. Every Wednesday, the wooden benches on the Elm Street side of the park are packed with homeless people waiting for a relaxing haircut, shave and facial massage from the 82-year-old Joe.

As soon as he parks his 1996 Crown Victoria and connects his clippers to the car battery, Cymerys is assaulted with questions about who should be the first in his barber chair. He asks his “customers” about the desired haircut style, and starts clipping, trimming and shaving. After that, Joe splashes some rubbing alcohol on his hands and proceeds to massage face, ears, neck, throat and shoulders. All he asks in exchange is a nice big hug. ”It really is love. I love these guys.That’s what it’s all about,” Anthony told the Associated Press. Giving haircuts may not seem like a big deal to a lot of people, but it’s actually very important. Homeless people have a hard time finding jobs because of the way the look, so Joe is really helping them out of a hairy situation in more ways than one.

Joe the Barber’s altruism has inspired others to help the homeless of Hartford. Ed Galler and Betty Magee, among others, wanted to help Joe out, so they started handing out home-cooked meals to people who fell on hard times. ”The first couple of times I came with Joe, so I felt safe,” Magee said. “Then after you’re here a couple of times, you realize it’s fine.”


Ossob Mohamud | Wednesday 13 February 2013 | theguardian.com 

I recently came across an interesting article questioning voluntourism and assessing whether it does more harm than good in communities of the global south. It reminded me of my own concerns with “voluntourism” that originated in my college years in which I had participated in Alternative Spring Breaks. It was considered an alternative to what most college students did on their vacations: spending idle time by the poolside. The university-organised trips sent students to spend a week in disadvantaged and poverty-stricken communities to volunteer. This could take the form of teaching English at the local school, assisting in building and beautifying new homes for residents, or environmental cleanups. Interspersed throughout the week were also touristy getaways and souvenir shopping. Although I had memorable and rewarding moments, I could never shake off the feeling that it was all a bit too self-congratulatory and disingenuous.

Voluntourism almost always involves a group of idealistic and privileged travelers who have vastly different socio-economic statuses vis–à–vis those they serve. They often enter these communities with little or no understanding of the locals’ history, culture, and ways of life. All that is understood is the poverty and the presumed neediness of the community, and for the purposes of volunteering, that seems to be enough. In my own experiences – also highlighted by the author of the article – this has led to condescending and superficial relationships that transform the (usually western) volunteer into a benevolent giver and the community members into the ever grateful receivers of charity. It makes for an extremely uncomfortable dynamic in which one begins to wonder if these trips are designed more for the spiritual fulfillment of the volunteer rather than the alleviation of poverty.

I couldn’t help feeling ashamed at the excessive praise and thanks we received from locals and those on the trip alike. I cringed as we took complimentary photos with African children whose names we didn’t know. We couldn’t even take full credit for building the houses because most of the work had already been done by community members. In fact, if anything we slowed down the process with our inexperience and clumsiness. And how many schools in the west would allow amateur college students to run their English classes for a day? What had I really done besides inflate my own ego and spruce up my resume? I had stormed into the lives of people I knew nothing about, I barely engaged with them on a genuine level, and worst of all, I then claimed that I had done something invaluable for them all in a matter of five days (of which most of the time was spent at hotel rooms, restaurants, and airports).

An entire industry has sprouted out of voluntourism as it increases in popularity, possibly equal to the increase in global inequality. As the gap between rich and poor widens, so too it seems does the need for those of the global north to assuage the guilt of their privilege (paradoxically, guilt only seems to deepen as many realise the illusory effect of their impact), or to simply look good. The developing world has become a playground for the redemption of privileged souls looking to atone for global injustices by escaping the vacuity of modernity and globalisation.

But does this address the root institutional and structural causes of the problem? I do not mean to deny, across the board, the importance of the work voluntourists do. Volunteers in developing countries fund and deliver great programmes that would not happen otherwise, but the sustainability and the effectiveness of the approach is what I question. Time and energy would be better spent building real solidarity between disparate societies based on mutual respect and understanding. Instead of focusing on surface symptoms of poverty, volunteers and the organisations that recruit them should focus on the causes that often stem from an unjust global economic order. Why not advocate and campaign for IMF and World Bank reforms? How about having volunteers advocate for their home country to change aggressive foreign and agricultural policies (such as subsidy programmes)? This might seem unrealistic but the idea is to get volunteers to understand their own (direct or indirect) role in global poverty. The idea is to get volunteers truly invested in ending poverty, and not simply to feel better about themselves.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/feb/13/beware-voluntourists-doing-good